Often referred to as the Red City because of the imposing rose-hued walls that encircle its ancient medina, Marrakech is an assault on the senses.
The city's beating heart is Djemaa el Fna, which is one of the busiest squares in Africa and, indeed, the world. Covering a vast area, it reverberates day and night to the haunting music of snake charmers; dancers; fortune-tellers; water sellers; acrobats; beggars and just about every other incarnation of humanity imaginable. At night, food stalls open for business, turning the square into a huge open-air restaurant.
Everyone seems to vie for the attention of tourists and, whilst immersing yourself into this heady mixture of sounds, sights and smells is what a trip to Marrakech is all about, you do need to keep your wits about you, particularly as there are also pick-pockets. All-female groups of travellers may find that they receive unwanted male attention, so it’s advisable to dress modestly and do your best to blend into the melee.
Marrakech’s souk, the largest traditional market in Morocco, is a maze of alleyways leading off from the square, where you can spend hours browsing and bartering with stallholders. The souk is divided up into zones, each specialising in a particular product, from slippers and spices to leather and metalwork.
On the roads, donkeys and ponies pulling heavily laden carts compete with motorbikes, cars and pedestrians, adding to the general sense of mayhem. No wonder many visitors prefer to view the scene from the relative calm of the rooftop terraces and balconies of cafes that surround the square. It all seems a little more appealing when you can take in the sights whilst sipping a glass of sweet mint tea or over a lunch of tagine.
Another way to escape the hubbub is to take a city tour on one of the red double decker buses that leave from a stop just outside the square at regular intervals throughout the day. From the open-air top deck you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the city’s residents going about their business; as well as the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, the city’s main place of worship; and the city walls and gates.
In addition to the old part of the city contained within the medina, Marrakech also comprises the new city of Gueliz, where you will find smart new shopping malls and long, leafy avenues. For a taste of modern Marrakech, visit Le Grand Café de la Poste on Boulevard El Mansour Eddahbi, a stylish eaterie that’s seems a world away from the stalls and souks of Djemaa el Fna. Rumoured to be popular with visiting films stars, it has a touch of Casablanca-style glamour about it.
It’s also worth taking a taxi to Le Jardin Majorelle, a lush green oasis given to the city by the late Yves Saint Laurent. Created in the 1920s by French artists Jacques and Louis Majorelle, it’s the perfect place to unwind and has a lovely outdoor café.
One thing I would recommend to anyone visiting Marrakech is to stay in one of the city’s many ancient riads, or guesthouses, rather than a hotel. We stayed at Riad dar Mimouna, which is ten minutes walk from Djemaa el Fna and tucked away down one of the city’s many winding alleyways, a stone’s throw from walls of the royal palace. It proved to be a soothing and restful escape from the frenetic activity on the streets outside. Richly decorated in traditional Moorish style, the inviting guest rooms lead off from a central courtyard with a mosaic-tiled fountain. The riad also has its own traditional hamman, or spa. There’s nothing nicer than a steam, scrub and massage followed by mint tea on the roof terrace after a hard day’s sightseeing.